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Peterson, Sir William, 1856-1921, Knight, classical scholar and educationalist

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William Peterson ( 1856-1921), classical scholar and educationalist, the fifth son of John Peterson, a merchant of Leith, by his wife, Grace Mountford Anderson, was born in Edinburgh, 29 May 1856. He was educated at Edinburgh High School, and the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1875. He then went with a travelling fellowship to Göttingen, Germany. In 1876, he entered Corpus Christi College, Oxford, as Ferguson scholar, graduating in 1879.

Following graduation, Peterson accepted the position of Assistant Professor of the humanities in the University of Edinburgh, and in 1882, he became first Principal of the newly founded University College, Dundee. Although he did not enjoy College politics or the administrative duties of a Principal, he excelled in the position, and attracted a number of young, forward thinking teachers and scholars to Dundee. However the long and often hostile negotiations leading to union with the University of St. Andrews, took its toll on Peterson. On one occasion, at an Extraordinary General Council meeting of St Andrews University, in 1893, Peterson was insultingly baited by St Andrews Rector, the Marquess of Bute, who was implacably opposed to affiliation with Dundee.

In 1895, Peterson left Dundee to take up the post of Principal of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, in succession to Sir William Dawson. In Montreal, Peterson's talent as administrator had ample scope. He found a group of largely autonomous schools, and transformed it into a University. He won the confidence of the wealthy men of Montreal, especially of Lord Strathcona and of Sir William Macdonald, the head of the Canadian tobacco industry, and obtained from them buildings and endowments, especially for agriculture, applied science, and medicine. Faculties of law, medicine, commerce, education, and social service were added to the University, but Peterson's constant endeavours to strengthen the faculty of arts found less sympathy in a great commercial city.

He took an active part in educational work in Quebec, and throughout Canada and the United States, and was a very distinct personality among the University Presidents of the continent. He was for some years Chairman of the protestant committee of the council of public instruction in Quebec, and for a time Chairman, of the Carnegie foundation for the advancement of teaching.

In politics he was an imperialist, and in his later years spoke and wrote much in favour of the continued and closer connexion between Canada and Great Britain. Though deeply devoted to McGill and to Canada, Peterson always remained half Scot, half cosmopolitan. He could show a salutary hauteur on occasion, and he did not suffer fools gladly, but he had also great personal charm and distinction.

During the First World War, Peterson spoke and worked unceasingly, and on 12 January 1919, while presiding at a meeting on behalf of the dependents of dead or disabled Scottish soldiers and sailors, he suffered a stroke. In May 1919, he resigned, and returned to England, dying at Hampstead on 4 January 1921.



Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1879-1882: Assistant Professor of the humanities, University of Edinburgh

1882-1895: Principal, University College, Dundee

1895-1919: Principal, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

1915: K.C.M.G.


List of sources for the biographical information:

Harrison, Brian (editor), Dictionary of National Biography, ( University Press, 1995)

Shafe, Michael, University Education in Dundee 1881-1981: A Pictorial History, (Dundee, University of Dundee, 1982)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to the National Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 28 August 2002